Ladbrokes offers piece of the action

Ladbrokes, the UK betting giant, is in talks with Legoland to persuade the theme park to join its bid to operate a super casino at Blackpool.

Talks are at an early stage, but Ladbrokes is keen for Merlin Entertainments, the company behind Legoland and Sea Life, to be part of the bid package presented to Blackpool council, it is understood.

The unlikely tie-up between the gambling company and children’s favourite Legoland has raised eyebrows in the leisure industry.

However, insiders are not surprised at the idea of a plastic-brick Blackpool Tower nestling next door to the five million sq ft of blackjack tables and slot machines. Rather, they are taken aback by how far advanced are Ladrokes‘ plans.

The Casino Advisory Panel (CAP), set up by the Government, is eight weeks away from deciding which council has been awarded the licence to run the super casino. Parliament then has to ratify the decision.

Earlier this year, CAP issued an interim scorecard ranking Greenwich (the Dome) as the favourite, closely followed by Glasgow, Blackpool and then Sheffield. Only after Parliament has agreed to the site are councils allowed to host a competitive auction to chose operators.

However, many councils have already held extended informal talks with casino companies. Most notably, Greenwich council is believed to strongly favour US billionaire Philip Anschutz.

Ladbrokes is the UK‘s smallest casino operator, with just one venue in London. However, it has made no secret of its ambition to win the contract at Blackpool if the seaside town is chosen.

As well as Merlin Entertainments, it has provisionally signed up Hilton to be its hotel partner, a crucial part of its package, because Blackpool wants to use the super casino to regenerate a 23-acre site on the Golden Mile, including opening a conference facility.

The site is partly owned by the council and partly by leisure magnate Trevor Hemmings. One of Mr Hemmings’s existing tenants is Sea Life, which puts Merlin in a strong position to negotiate a key pitch in the new complex. The entertainment company, owned by private equity giant Blackstone, plans to open smaller, indoor versions of Legoland. A regenerated Blackpool is being earmarked as a prime site.

A spokesman for Ladbrokes refused to comment yesterday on who it was negotiating with but said: „We want to present the council with a full entertainments package, not just a gambling venue, which will allow full regeneration.“

Gamcare, which tackles problem gambling, said they did not have a problem with a children’s theme park being sited next to a giant casino.

„If it serves to provide a distraction from the gambling, that has to be a good thing,“ a spokesman said.